The author catches up on the French cinema over a mid-ride coffee break. Photo credit: Stuart Rome
You’ve probably seen the video more than 1.4 million people have: Rudi Saldia and his cat, Mary Jane, selfie-ing around town on a bike, the cat on Rudi’s shoulder, nuzzling the mustachioed courier as he wheels down leafy narrow streets, blue skies and fluffy white clouds overhead, or cruises along a wide boulevard, office towers illuminated in the night. The video (shot with a GoPro, fixed to the handlebars), was posted in October, 2012, and quickly went viral. It could have been made anywhere, but it wasn’t it was made in Philadelphia, just one more example of how cycling culture has taken off in the City of Brotherly Love.
I haven’t spotted Saldi and his feline pal along the bike lanes in Center City (I did catch them one weekend afternoon taking the corner of 12th and Walnut Streets, as nonchalantly as any seasoned city rider). But the other morning I went over to Green Street Coffee on Spruce, planted myself at a sidewalk table and decided I’d just do some serious people-watching people pedaling along on the bike lane, that is.
Here are notes from my unofficial tally: Girl in an orange coat on an orange bike guy in scrubs on a beat up Schwinn. mother and preschooler on a Dutch upright. guy on a BMX pedaling hard guy on a 3-speed English racer. woman on a bike with a leather briefcase in the basket. woman on a mixte, a rolled-up yoga mat strapped to her back a father and two little boys on a longtail bike.a woman with her lab leashed to a bar attached to her seatpost, the black dog’s tongue hanging out. In 45 minutes that Friday a.m., I counted 153 riders heading for work, for school, to yoga, to who knows where. No Rudi and MJ, but plenty of people looking just at home wheeling through the city.
It didn’t used to be this way. As long-time Philly cyclists can attest, there was a time just a few years ago when there were no bike lanes in Center City, no Share the Road signs, no bike racks or street parking for bikes. What there was a lot of were cab drivers and truck drivers yelling at you to get out of the way, go ride on the sidewalks. If you tried to explain that it was actually a ticketable offense to ride on the sidewalk, you were likely to get in a shouting match, or worse. I was once grabbed by a linebacker-sized citizen who got out of his car to share a few niceties after I yelled at him for cutting me off. He literally picked me up by my collar my feet dangling in the air, like a cartoon. So, yes, there’s still a long way to go, but it really does look we’re getting there to a place where cycling is an integral part of the transportation equation of the city. So common that’s it’s taken for granted. A given.
© Thom Carroll Photography 2013
In 2011, Philadelphia was ranked the number one city in the U.S. in terms of the percentage of commuters who bike to work. Between 2000 and 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, bicycle commuting increased 151% in Philadelphia. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Center City and South Philly now rank among the top 25 most bicycled areas in the entire country. And that’s not just a boon for people who depend on their bike for day-in, day-out transport. Recreational riders can now take dedicated bike lanes from the heart of the city to the Schuylkill Banks, ride the path to Fairmount Park and take bike lanes all the way out to Valley Forge and beyond. There are great rides all through the area, in Bucks and Chester County, in South Jersey, the towpath along the Delaware that goes from Trenton north to Frenchtown and beyond.
New bike shops are springing up all over, many with their own niche, their own customer base. (Dutch cargo bikes, anyone? Folding bikes? Five-figure carbon frame road bikes?) Bike cafes, bars with so many bikes locked to street signs and racks and parking meter poles that it looks like a peloton just stopped in for beer.
With more and more riders, come problems, too. Bike theft? It’s rampant, and the sad sight of a front wheel U-locked to a rack, and all the rest of the bike gone, is all too common (U-lock goes through wheel and frame, please!) And there’s a sizable contingent of Philly cyclists who believe traffic laws don’t apply tearing through lights, through crosswalks with pedestrians, passing fellow cyclists right and left without warning, riding at night without lights. I go to Toronto every September for the film festival, and it never ceases to amaze me how (most) cyclists wait in a polite queue for the signals to change (so do the pedestrians jay-walking isn’t the default mode). If someone passes you, they ring their bell (required by law, as are front and back lights). Sure, there are still altercations between drivers and riders and walkers and the mayor of Toronto, who hails from the city’s suburban edge, is notoriously anti-bike. But, well, mostly it’s very civilized up there in the Canadian burg. We could use a bit more of that here, too.
But these issues will be worked out. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has education programs in place, and has proven to be a strong lobbyist working together with the city administration, with schools and community groups. Mayor Nutter leads the bike-to-work ride every spring and a new bike share program is in the planning stages. Just imagine: soon you’ll be able to go to a nearby bike station, swipe your card, get on a bike and cruise around town you and your cat and your camera. Maybe a whole city of cyclists can become a YouTube sensation, too.